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Through a lens, brightly


Three ace cinematographers come together for a lively discussion.


``In a film, if a particular visual is noticed as standing apart from the rest, it's like reading a book and saying, oh, this sentence is very good. The cameraman should hide behind the director,'' shrugged Madhu Ambat. ``The camera should be unobtrusive. I feel horrible if a particular shot gets applause from the audience, I consciously avoid such distractions,'' said Balu Mahendra. ``We have a cinema of interruptions. If a song is bad, people walk out. Cinema is always desperately trying to hold their shifting attention. So why can't we accept it if they clap for some great shot" asked Rajiv Menon. These opening remarks were enough to establish their differing perspectives and temperaments.

The three cinematographers, also film makers, came together to talk and interact with the audience at Studio 5, for Lights On, a monthly Sathyam Cinemas presentation, curated by Prasanna Ramaswamy. The discussion was illustrated by clips from their own films.

Different emotions

Avoiding technical jargon, they tackled the basic question — what is good cinematography? ``Understanding the script, visualising what the director wants, and saying it through the right kind of light, tempo, movement,'' said Ambat. He emphasised the camera's ability to create different emotions suitable to the style in the film. Mahendra wanted his viewers to feel that everything was shot in available, natural light.


``I come from a different school,'' Menon responded. ``Photography goes with realism, we struggle to make it surreal.'' If poetry inheres in what lies between the words, the cinematographer's task is to capture the unsaid. He must make the film so spectacular as to entice viewers to abandon television and come to the theatre. The camera must go beyond the functional aspects of replicating period and location. The three agreed that the camera's contribution is as creative as the director's. Ambat saw it as reflecting the inner life of the situation and character, going beyond a faithful reproduction of frame and performance. There were many ways to achieve this — light, shadow, movement, lack of movement. ``You must make the viewer feel what the character feels.'' Menon shot for others (``Bombay" to ``Morning Raga") not when he directed his own films (``Minsarakanavu" and ``Kandu Kondein...")

The tense, tough process of filmmaking requires a cameraman whom the director can trust absolutely. ``We don't storyboard our films, they're created on location. Exciting, also frightening. We can't afford to shoot each sequence in ten different ways and choose the best,'' Menon explained. So the editing process starts in the shooting, with the cameraman as close collaborator. ``Without this creative contribution technical excellence is nowhere,'' said Mahendra. ``The cameraman has to enhance the script and mood unobtrusively, by composition, lighting, selection of lens.'' This is best done with an articulate director, but how much can the visual be verbally explained? So, the cameraman has to know his script, shots before and after, must possess a sense of direction and editing.

Mahendra spoke with the authority of one who practised what he preached — hadn't he scripted, directed, shot and edited his films? The best of them, ``Veedu," certainly had the kind of unity dreamed about by others less multi-proficient.


Whether Akira Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman, every filmmaker had a favourite cinematographer. Many put in long-term work in tandem. Andre Wajda and Tarkovsky had seen their cameramen as co-authors. Invited to comment, cinematographer Sunny Josef spoke of the yin yang of director and lensman.

How can the lensman be denied co-authorship when it is his chiaroscuros that turn cinema into the greatest art of contrast?

CHANAKYA: Ambat is the cinematographer for this soon-to-bereleased film.

As the concurrence began to pall, a welcome disagreement got the audience to sit up. Mahendra announced, ``I strongly feel that the director is the author of the film, that is, if he writes his own script.''

``Balu can talk, he does everything himself," smiled Ambat. The co-authorship issue naturally introduced other claimants — actor, scriptwriter, editor, and music director.


The acute shortage of the professional screenplay writer was acknowledged. This became a cue for film maker Hariharan to recall the first film co-operative society's making of ``Ghashiram Kotwal" (1976) with four directors. Film schools could only teach how to say it, not what to say, Menon remarked.

VEEDU: Balu Mahendra's masterpiece.

Debut director Sharada Ramanathan (Shringaram) echoed, ``We have a lot of people with craft, what's missing is ideation.''

Though it did not say it directly the discussion did imply this truth: the camera demanded not just training, judgment and precision, but imagination, intuition and taste. The presence of filmmakers, artists, musicians, and dancers enriched the ambience. However, the discussion on the high tech craft was hampered by low tech satyagraha by the mikes, and poor alignment in the clips. The apologetic curator promised a better future. Hopefully, this will include a moderator to channel, cut, vary, fine-tune and probe beyond familiar form.

MORNING RAGA: Rajiv Menon's camera captures subtle emotions. PIC. COURTESY: FILM NEWS ANANDAN.

The easy conversation on that day did not become a debate nor did it throw up surprises, insight or revelations about personal stylistics.

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